In the distance two children run behind a donkey-cart, wheeling the steel inner rims of bicycle tyres stripped of their rubber rings. A girl in red rides the cart, stirrups held calmly in her small hands, guiding the animal and the cart deftly over the rutted dirt track cutting through vast fields of golden grain, the wheat cut and stacked in sheaves, sentries in a landscape where harvests of hope have often been ruined by pestilence and blight.
This time it was the rain and hailstones that pelted down on the fields mercilessly, damaging this season’s wheat crop, even while our gardens bloomed with purple petunias and fragrant sweet-peas, their delicate tendrils curling around the trellis like the nimble fingers of a child carpet weaver. We, in the comfort of our vast homes, tended to by an impressive number of “house-help”, nurtured by the best the land has to offer, have been oblivious to the hunger which stalks the same land, despite the rich harvests, despite the hope vested by our rulers in miraculous seeds which shall banish hunger forever.
Having exhausted almost all possibility as far as the construction of flyovers and underpasses are concerned, the Khadim-i-Aala, the First Amongst Those who Serve, has assured us that the Punjab shall once again become the Granary of the Subcontinent, that wheat fields shall yield rich harvests, that no one shall go without food, that there shall be no want and no privation, that all shall be well in the Land of the Four Rivers and a ‘glorified gutter’ previously known as the Ravi.
The procurement of 3.5m tons of wheat by the provincial government shall ensure that all children get adequate nutrition, that no child shall be born with low birth weight, that no child shall suffer stunted growth, that no child shall die before the age of five for want of clean drinking water, that no child shall remain illiterate and uneducated, that no educated adult shall sit in despair, failing to have found a meaningful job. It shall ensure that all work shall receive decent remuneration, that all women shall be protected from multiple pregnancies which can cost them their lives, that all girls and young boys shall be protected from abuse, that all citizens shall be able to breathe clean air and drink fresh water, that the birds shall sing and soar above in a clear sky, that all shall truly be well and the midnight meetings at the camp office of the Chief Minister shall not have been in vain.
According to the 2012-2013 Pakistan Demographics and Health Survey, 45pc of all Pakistani children under five are stunted or too short for their age. Stunting is most common amongst the children of less educated mothers, and those from the poorest households. Stunting is more common in the rural areas, 48pc as compared to 37pc in the urban areas. Wasting, an indication of chronic malnutrition, occurs amongst 11pc of Pakistani children, with 30pc of all children being too thin for their age.
At Rs50 a kilo, ata or wheat flour, is now almost a luxury for those who live on or below the poverty line. According to eminent economist Dr Akmal Hussain, two-thirds of Pakistan’s people live in a chronic state of food insecurity. According to another able economist and former chairman of the Planning Commission, Dr Pervez Tahir, the issue of land ownership and distribution of resources is paramount and yet almost totally neglected in the government’s frenzy to forge ahead with the construction of flyovers and underpasses and jangla bus interchanges as a solution to the systemic injustices and structural inequities suffered by society.
Throughout the country, the number of landless increases as farming is corporatised instead of co-operatised, soils are being battered with chemical inputs which destroy natural nutrients, water is being polluted with the same chemical spray run-offs; animals die from poisoned water supplies. Terminator seeds replace the indigenous seed which self-generates after being harvested and stored carefully, like nuggets of gold. Hybrid varieties of seed required far more expensive inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides to protect the crop, as well as larger volumes of water to irrigate the fields, a process which eventually led to the salination of the soil through the process of water-logging and poor drainage.
I watch the two boys and the girl in red as they disappear down a country lane towards a small hamlet where the evening meal shall consist of roti and a small serving of vegetable curry, shared with a household of perhaps eight to 10 others. In the evening these children shall play in the dirt courtyards of their homes and then sleep fitfully as the heat and mosquitoes exact vengeance for a prolonged spring. This year, 16.5m acres are to be harvested in Punjab. Shall it be a harvest of hope, or will these and countless other children continue to run down the same rutted country lane, dented tyre rims in their hands, the dust of despair forming a perpetual haze around their lives, their futures?